A Special Breed

The cowboys of the high Andes.
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The cowboys of the high Andes.

In the shadow of the Andes, Ecuadorian cowboys called chagras practice traditions that have remained virtually unchanged for centuries, and photographer Pete Oxford—who moved to Ecuador 30 years ago and now calls the country home—documents their unique way of life. 

“These are the last guys working the high Andes,” he says. “Their lifestyle is truly incredible.”

Like cowboys the world over, the chagras’ job is to handle cattle. However, instead of managing beef cattle, the chagras work a decidedly more hazardous type of bovine: the fighting bull. 

The annual six-day roundup of the 74,850-acre Hacienda Yanahurco brings in 3,000 head, requiring the efforts of some 50 chagras. The cattle are brought down from elevations nearing 13,000 feet and doctored, the cows and calves are released, and some 100 bulls are sorted to head off to (no-kill) bullfighting rings. 

Working hot bulls in high country can be a difficult, dangerous job, and chagras depend on years of honed instincts and generations of knowledge to do their job well. 

“They are totally in tune with everything,” Oxford explains. “All the elements—horses, cattle, and environment—are as one. The chagras are very much in tune with each other, with their horses, with the lay of the land, with the cattle, and with the weather.” 

Unlike cowboys in other cultures, chagras are not always well received in their home country. Oxford says, “Gauchos and cowboys have songs and poetry written about them—they get a very romantic portrayal—whereas ‘chagra’ is a term used as an insult.”

Oxford hopes that his photographs educate the world about the life and skills of Ecuador’s cowboys. 

“They deserve more,” he says. “They deserve the songs, the poems, the romance. They really are a special breed and they are disappearing. ‘Chagra’ is a dirty word still, and I wanted to jump in and record their value and expertise; I want to change minds.

“These men are working in places that a tractor can’t go. They work in the last bastion of a world untouched by civilization and mechanization. I hope people look at my photographs and realize, ‘Wow, those guys are pretty cool.’ ”—Lauren Feldman

See more of Pete Oxford’s photography at PeteOxford.com or check out the trips he leads (including Ecuador) at FocusExpeditions.com.